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Stewart starts the Chase with first win of 2011

Tony Stewart has been lamenting his poor form for the last few months, but it seems all he needed was a little injection of Chase fever - plus some help from fuel conservation strategies.
Tony Stewart has not been having the best of seasons, and only scraped into the Chase at all in the final race at Richmond. But if he and his fans were despairing of Smoke being able to make any impression in the post-season shoot-out, those doubts were dramatically swept away when his first victory of 2011 coincided with this first round of the Chase.

After the drama of Sunday's washout, it seemed that the race itself was going to be a rather business-like affair. But it turned out to be a race with a tense last few laps of fuel-conservation that dramatically claimed some big Chase names before the chequered flag came out.

Following the long overnight wait, Matt Kenseth finally led the field to the green flag at the start of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway at 11.13am local time on Monday morning. He led Kurt Busch and the field throughout the first 30 laps until the pre-scheduled competition caution to allow teams to check out the state of the cars on the washed-clean surface of the 1.5-mile tri-oval.

Kyle Busch gambled on taking only two tyres under the caution and emerged in the lead, but it was brother Kurt who had the genuine form at this early stage and who quickly pulled out a big lead over Greg Biffle as the #18 started to slip back on its older rubber.

A yellow flag on lap 70 for debris put an end to the 2.6s lead that Kurt had built up. The #22 got the best of the four-tyre pit stops and retained the lead for the restart ahead of Biffle, Kenseth, Menard, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. Once again, Kurt shot out ahead of his rivals in no time flat, while further back it was a great restart for Kevin Harvick who had been trailing back in 16th but who jumped up to tenth in just a few laps after the track went green.

Jimmie Johnson was also flying and up to third, but things were not looking so good for Denny Hamlin who had to head onto pit road under the green flag complaining of vibration and needing a new set of tyres, and who dropped to 37th - hardly the start he wanted to the post-season after squeezing into the Chase on the final wildcard, especially with the top eight runners at this point of the race consisting of his Chase rivals.

Greg Biffle had previously been up there in the top ten, but he was forced to drop back with an unscheduled pit stop of his own. "We didn't figure out what it is yet, something fell off," said Biffle when asked what had happened. "It definitely hurt our chances today though. Fuel mileage was something, but we were handicapped ... We had more problems today than fuel mileage."

Kurt Busch's impressive reign in front was finally ended by Carl Edwards on lap 104, who swiftly pulled out a 0.7s lead as green flag pit stops loomed. Jeff Gordon was the first, making a slightly premature stop on lap 108 for an apparent problem with his right front tyre and ending up a lap down, before others started to stream in shortly afterwards.

Carl Edwards continued to lead after his stop, ahead of Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson who were fighting hard - but remarkably cleanly, given their flare-up last week at Richmond - for second place. Edwards opened up a 3s lead at one point during his part of the race, until Johnson finally won the battle for second position and started to close up on the leader. Finally the matter became academic when a caution came out for debris on the backstretch on lap 145

by Andrew Lewin



Related Pictures

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The #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet driven by Tony Stewart crosses the finish line to win the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 19 in Joliet, Ill. [Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR]
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, celebrates with champagne and crew chief Tony Gibson in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 26, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 26, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 26, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 26, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS, wins, causing his crew to celebrate Sunday, April 26, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS, races to victory Sunday, April 26, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory with a burn-out Sunday, April 26, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory Sunday, April 26, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 26, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
People walk on pit road as rain falls prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 25, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #20 Hisense Toyota, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Discount Tire Ford, lead the field to start during the NASCAR XFINITY Series ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #20 Hisense Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR XFINITY Series ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #20 Hisense Toyota, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR XFINITY Series ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #20 Hisense Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #20 Hisense Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #20 Hisense Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet SS, qualifies for sixth position Friday, April 24, 2015 for Saturday evening`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Truex, Jr. is third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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